Thanks to Mother Jones Magazine
Havana—Mixing tourism and politics is rarely a good idea. The traveler usually doesn’t have the language, the cultural sensitivity, or the familiarity with a country’s history, to make value judgments about how a society should be run. So better to stay on the beach, and out of the barrio, and leave revolution to the locals.
Cuba, however, may be an exception to the rule. Fidel Castro’s illness creates a wonderful opportunity for change on an island that’s in a deep economic (and social) malaise. There’s not much that Cubans can do—Fidel’s security apparatus is still a powerful disincentive to dissent in the Western Hemisphere’s only Communist state. But tourists can do a lot with their dollars: tourism is fast becoming Cuba’s most important industry, and the government will bend over backwards to keep visitors feeling secure and happy.
Thus, how you spend those dollars, and how you manage your contacts with ordinary Cubans, can make a difference. I recently spent a month in Havana, where $1 a day is the average wage, and found there are all kinds of opportunities for creatively undermining a tough, one-party regime. Most of the suggestions in my Handbook for Subversive Tourism are risk-free, and of benefit to Cubans. Besides, Fidel himself has always been a proponent of social activism. Why shouldn’t foreign visitors take him at his word?
With that in mind, here are some things that tourists can do:
1. Pass out subversive literature
At a second-hand bookstand in the Plaza de las Armas, I found an English-language copy of George Orwell (Inside the Whale, and Other Essays), and a wrinkled paperback of Alexander Solzhenitzyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Both are classic anti-totalitarian texts that, if read carefully, have pointed things to say about Communist regimes like Castro’s. When I handed them to Marta, my Spanish tutor (not her real name), she couldn’t believe that they had escaped the notice of Fidel’s Interior Ministry snoops. I made sure to underline relevant passages. Excerpt from Orwell: “The highest state of totalitarian organization (is) when conformity has become so general that there is no need for a police force.”
The best part of the deal is that, once Marta has absorbed (and hopefully photocopied) the books, she can sell them back to the Old Havana booksellers and earn enough to eat for a week or more. Talk about recycling revolution!
2. Eat local
As a grudging (and temporary) concession to entrepreneurship, Castro has allowed families to open restaurants in their homes, and even to advertise. I ate at these so-called paladares as often as I could because, in spite of crushingly high taxes, they put money directly into the pockets of Cubans. You also meet real Cubans here, and the restaurants have a homespun character. My favorite paladar was a joint not far from the Havana Libre hotel in Vedado called El Jinete (The Horseman). It has a Wild West theme, with Clint Eastwood posters on the wall, and even a hanging noose next to the front door, and it sold a decent red snapper filet, with rice and salad, for $15.
Most paladares have a short life span because they pay a set monthly tax, whether they have customers of not. Bruno, for example, has to pay Fidel $3000 a year for the right to feed people in his home in the middle-class Vedado district, and many nights in the off season, his six tables sit empty. Also, sale of beef, lobster and shrimp, for example, is strictly prohibited because of a state monopoly; however, most paladares flout the law by offering lobster because of a higher profit margin. So, do your bit for the people, and order the under-the-counter lobster!
3. Sleep local
The subversive tourist will avoid the money-sucking hotels, and stay with Cuban families who operate what are called casas particulares (private rooms.) Fidel tolerates this form of private enterprise only because of a chronic shortage of hotel rooms, and he’ll probably shut them down as more rooms are built. (Canada is a major foreign investor in hotels and resorts.)
As in the case of the private restaurants, the tax on these rooms is prohibitive (about 40%) whether they are occupied or not. Still, they’re a useful source of hard currency for middle-class Cubans (if there is such a thing.) I negotiated a month’s stay with Yamila and Mario for under $1000 CDN, with $5 extra per day for breakfast. I got a bed, air-conditioning, a private bathroom with hot-and-old water shower and a sitting room, with a private entrance. No mini-bar, but a small functioning Russian fridge.
4. Learn local
Many long-term tourists take Spanish lessons in Cuba. You can do so at the University of Havana, or through an authorized tutor. If you do so, you’ll be subsidizing Fidelismo. On the other hand, you can ask around and find a private teacher who needs the money a lot more than El Jefe. I found Marta, a former university chemistry professor who charged $6 an hour to teach me Spanish irregular verbs. “Please don’t tell anyone about this,” she begged, “or they’ll force me to teach at government rates (about 60 cents an hour.)” While she taught me, Marta was her family’s main breadwinner: Her son, an anesthesiologist in a major hospital, earns $25 a month.
5. Be discriminating about what you buy
Don’t buy that Che Guevara T-shirt. His authorized photograph is striking, but Che is an over-heated, over-hyped propaganda icon who, as a member of Fidel’s regime, achieved almost nothing of value. It’s ironic that this mythic, vain anti-capitalist is now Cuban’s hottest commercial item. Every T-shirt perpetuates the bloated myth and fattens Fidel’s treasury.
If you must buy a souvenir, buy some local art (and try to buy it directly from the artist, rather than the shop) or better yet, buy on the street. Alberto and Teresitta, a retired Havana couple, make their living by introducing themselves to likely-looking tourists, and selling pirate CDs of classic Cuban music, for $10 a pop. If they sell one or two a week, that’s enough for groceries and rent.
I found a stunning piece of copper sculpture in an Old Havana handicraft shop. But the price was too high. So I spent two days tracking down the artist—a sickly-looking underfed 27-year-old too poor to afford a studio—and he recalled it from the shop. I bought it directly from him at a discount. He even found a local carpenter to build me a shipping carton. I figured both the artist and the carpenter needed the money more than Fidel.
6. Look “behind the façade”
One of the most impressive things about Havana is the reconstruction of the historic old part of the city—a stunning reminder that in the 17th and 18th Century, Havana was the leading city, culturally and economically, in Latin America. The rebuilding program is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and it’s a major draw for tourism. But, warned my Spanish teacher Sonia, “you have to look behind the façade.” Those old buildings have people living in them. Many of them are poor, and some are squatters. And when Fidel’s demolition teams move in, the residents have to move, and most of them are being shipped out to drab housing developments away from central Havana.
Tourists owe it to themselves to stray from the main tourists routes, like Calle Obispo in Old Havana, to take a first-hand look how Cubans really live. Only a couple of blocks away, people still have to carry their water in buckets up three flights of stairs, and they live in crowded squalor. “Sure, Cubans dance and sing a lot,” said my guide Jorge, “but look at their eyes. What you see there is not happy.”
7. Spread the news
Cubans have little if any access to uncensored news from the outside world. There are no foreign newspapers, access to the Internet is strictly limited, and Cubans are not allowed, under pain of arrest, into the hotel rooms of foreigners who can watch CNN on television.
But for about the price of what a Cuban doctor earns in a week, I could access Google News for an hour a day at most of the major Havana hotels, and then prepare a synopsis of world news for Marta, Jorge and anyone else I might have contact with during the day. Then we could contrast those stories with what appeared in the weekly Granma, the official Cuban Communist Party organ. (A sample Granma headline: “In case of hurricane, it’s 15 times safer to live in Cuba, than in the U.S.”)
8. Hire local
You can pay an authorized tour guide, who’ll help you spend those Convertible Pesos. Or you can find an out-of-work Cuban, like Jorge, who, for $20 a day, will take you to all the same places and who, as a bonus, will tell you what life is really like in Castro’s Cuba. He may even show you his squalid overcrowded apartment building just off the tourist track, which has no running water.
Be forewarned: What Jorge is doing is illegal. So, as he guides you through Havana’s streets, he will ask you to walk 10 paces behind him. Otherwise, the police may arrest him for illegal fraternizing with foreigners. Second warning: On the day before your return flight home, Jorge will ask if you can leave him your clothes. Modern clothes and shoes are prohibitively expensive in Havana because of the American embargo.